Are Cell Phones A Health Risk?

We discuss the various studies on cell phone health risks and the precautions to take

Are Cell Phones A Health Risk?
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Smartphone Health Risk Studies

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Living in today's world, it's likely you've heard rumors about cell phones and health. With smartphones everywhere, including in our kids' pockets, you no doubt want to know whether there's actually something to worry about.

MoneySavingPro is going to show you what the authorities are saying, as well as what recent research on cell phones and health shows.

Why Are Cell Phones a Potential Health Concern?

Mobile phones emit a type of electromagnetic radiation called radio frequency energy. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are a few important things to understand about this type of radiation:

  • It is not the same type of radiation emitted by things like x-rays and radon.
  • Ionizing radiation - the type emitted by x-rays and CT scans - can damage cells and increase cancer risk.
  • Cell phones expose us to non-ionizing radiation, which thus far is not conclusively tied to an increase in cancer risk.
  • Non-ionizing radiation can heat cells and tissue, which is not thought to be a serious side effect.

Long-term, heavy exposure to the type of radiation not found in cell phones can potentially cause health problems. We simply do not yet know enough about the long-term effects of radio frequency energy to be able to say whether severe health problems are possible.

In 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC - a division of the World Health Organization) highlighted a potential link between mobile phone use and cancer, specifically brain cancer.

On May 31, 2011, the agency designated radiofrequency fields as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" and published a Q&A on the topic, with the following takeaway:

The studies to date do not permit to rule out a relationship between mobile phone use and risk of brain cancer although the evidence is limited...

Since the IARC began publicizing this potential risk there have been more studies, however, the evidence is still conflicting.

It's also important to realize that the category in which the IARC has placed cell phone radiation (category 2B) is a low-risk category that also contains things like coffee and power line frequencies.

What Does the Research Say About Cell Phone Risks?

There are a number of completed as well as ongoing studies into the health risks of cell phones.

INTERPHONE: Brain tumor risk in relation to mobile telephone use (2010)

Highlights of this interview-based study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology include:

  • Assessed over 5000 people with glioma (brain tumor) or meningioma (non-cancerous brain or spinal cord tumor) throughout 13 countries, along with matched control subjects
  • Found no significant difference in tumor occurrence among cell phone users vs. non-cell phone users
  • Found a higher odds ratio of glioma on the same side of the head as users reported holding their cell phone vs. tumors on the other side of the head

Ultimately the researchers were unable to draw any definitive conclusions about mobile phones causing increased brain tumors.

INTERPHONE: Acoustic neuroma in relation to mobile telephone use (2011)

This study on acoustic neuroma (non-cancerous tumor between the inner ear and brain) is similar to the other INTERPHONE research:

  • Conducted on 1105 patients and 2145 control subjects across 13 countries
  • Found no increase in acoustic neuroma cases in the vast majority of cell phone users
  • Found a higher ratio of cases in people with the top 10% of cumulative talk time

Due to possible errors and/or biases, the authors of this study concluded that they can't draw a certain causal relationship between cell phones and tumors.

National Toxicology Program Technical Reports

In February 2018 the New York Times reported on a pair of studies analyzed by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

One study looked at cancer and cell phone exposure in mice, the other in rats.

Notable points in this research:

  • As with most animal studies, the exposure was much higher and for longer periods than humans are exposed to.
  • Interestingly, there was an increased rate of heart tumors in male rats, but not in female rats or in any mice.
  • According to John Bucher, a senior scientist at the National Toxicology Program, these heart tumors are similar to the acoustic neuromas in humans that were studied in the 2011 INTERPHONE research.
  • This was the first research that showed DNA damage after exposure radio frequency energy, something that scientists had previously thought unlikely.

NTP officials are quick to point out that there is a large gap between animal studies and applying the results to humans.

The National Cancer Institute goes into detail on many more studies, all of which fail to demonstrate a significant, conclusive connection between cancer and cell phone use.

Ongoing Research

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration provides a list of current research projects regarding cell phones and health risks.

Concerns in the UK

Earlier this year a study was released showing that aggressive malignant brain tumors more than doubled in England between 1995 and 2015, from 2.4 to 5 per 100,000 people.

Alisdair Philips, the lead author of the research - published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health - makes several points regarding this increase:

  • His research paper is not about cell phones, it's about the increase in brain tumors.
  • Mobile phones seem like a possible lifestyle cause of the increase.
  • The overall risk of this type of brain tumor is still very tiny.

Precautions to Take

Although manufacturers typically include common-sense measures to take within cell phone manuals, California took action in 2017 to issue an official set of safe use recommendations.

  • Keep your phone in a purse or other place away from your body, rather than in a pocket or your bra.
  • Use the hands-free calling feature when possible.
  • Remove your headset when not on a call.
  • Keep your phone away from your bed - particularly your head - at night.
  • Try to reduce use when you have a weak signal (one or two bars) because radio frequency energy emission is higher at these times.

Recap

Although it's easy to panic, even the researchers say it's not necessary to be overly worried. There is an abundance of scientific literature on the potential health hazards of cell phones, yet none of it has been able to draw a conclusive link.

The best course of action is to follow - and most importantly teach your kids to follow - the above cautionary steps, just to err on the safe side. What is even more dangerous to you and your teens is texting and driving. Learn more about texting and driving statistics and how to keep your family safe!

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